By Clarence Page

What might the highly publicized suicide of a Massachusetts girl tormented by cyber-bullying have in common with the videotaped fatal beating of a teenaged boy in Chicago? Other students apparently knew that trouble was brewing, but no one managed to step in and stop it.

Bullying by other teens is alleged to have driven Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old immigrant from Ireland, to end her life in Massachusetts in January. Six students now face criminal charges, including violation of civil rights and statutory rape.

A few months earlier the world watched horrifying video of Derrion Albert, 16, beaten to death near his high school on Chicago's South Side. Three youths were charged in his killing. Students told police that youths from rival neighborhoods had been attacking each other for more than a month. Didn't any adults know? Did anyone know what to do?

Sadly, as anyone who has raised a teenager should know, they give up inside information about what's going on in their world about as easily as CIA agents give up nuclear secrets.

Yet studies of teen violence show that almost every school fight -- or worse -- is preceded by a "buzz," gossip that may go on for days without adults getting a clue. The key is to gain the confidence of young people in a culture that ranks "snitching" or anything that resembles it to be the height of un-coolness.

Fortunately some old schools are learning new tricks. One that recently impressed me was Forest Park High School in Baltimore, a school that turned the corner on student violence and disorder in ways that sound like a movie just waiting to be discovered by Hollywood.

There's the idealistic Principal Thomas Hill, a former Chicago and Ann Arbor resident who also is white and therefore, he says, "not expected to last until Christmas" when he arrived at the all-black school. That was in 2008. So far this year, the school has reduced fight, attacks and suspensions by about 55 percent compared to last year, according to Baltimore public school figures, and reduced expulsions by 70 percent. "And so far this year, no dropouts," said Hill, resisting the temptation to knock on wood.

Part of the credit goes to an idealistic ex-con church leader who would be hard to make up if he didn't already exist: Minister Billy H. Stanfield, a former drug kingpin who says he found the Lord after surviving a botched execution. Yeah. That would work for me, too.

Stanfield's New Vision Youth Services provides youth advisers as mentors from the local community, available 24/7 to help youngsters work out problems ranging from academics to anger issues.

And, yes, there are the kids. Fifteen group homes feed into this one high school where almost 30 percent of the students are classified as having "special needs."

Several spoke to me with poignant candor about how the program helped them turn their lives around enough for them to help mentor other students. "I used to be angry all the time," said one senior. "I just wanted to fight. I'm still angry. But I'm learning to stay cool about the fighting."

Another key player in this movie is the outside facilitator, Robert Woodson, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur "genius grant" recipient who founded the Washington-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Since the center initiated its Violence Free Zones program five years ago, it has set up similar programs to Baltimore's in schools in Milwaukee, Baltimore, Atlanta, Dallas and Richmond, Va. A Baylor University study of the Milwaukee program found not only reductions in violence similar to those in Baltimore but also reductions in crimes such as auto theft near the schools.

What a difference better communications make. A key to the program's success is the youth advisers, who Woodson calls "antibodies," helping the main body fight off diseases. Their street knowledge, particularly of the families and neighbors where students live, is more important than academic credentials.

Still, applicants have to be screened with "FBI standards," as Woodson puts it. That's important. One scandal could sink the whole project. So far, most of the news about violence-free zones has been good, which certainly beats the other kind.

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